In January 2012, the number of unaccompanied Central American children crossing into the United States suddenlydoubled. As months passed, the number of children apprehended at the border just kept growing. U.S. government officials scrambled to find shelters for the influx of children and nonprofits struggled to figure out why so many kids were willing to risk the long, dangerous journey to the United States.
These children who have been apprehended at the U.S. border, ranging in ages from 4 to 18, primarily come from three countries: Guatemala (35 percent), El Salvador (27 percent) and Honduras (25 percent). All three countries are currently experiencing some of the highest murder rates in the world. Much of the violence is being spurred by drug trafficking, weak state institutions, corruption and gang violence. The New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission spent several months interviewing the children detained in the United States and on Monday released its report, “The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America.”
What the group found was that poverty is no longer the primary reason children are migrating to the United States—what’s driving them from their homes is fear. “They fear for their lives,” said commission attorney Jessica Jones in a telephone press conference Monday. “What we heard from many of the children is, ‘I know I may die on the journey, but I knew I would die if I stayed home,’” she said.
Researchers at the nonprofit commission interviewed more than 150 children detained in the United States and met with U.S. government agencies tasked with handling the influx of children. The commission came to the troubling conclusion that this level of migration will be the new norm due to the growing rates of violence in Central America.
Children cited public schools overrun by violent gangs and neighborhoods divided by gang affiliation where people can’t move freely without being threatened with violence. Girls cited an increase in gang rapes and street violence and said that authorities were unable to protect them. Jones said the commission interviewed one 11-year-old girl who had been paying protection money since she was 9 to prevent gang members from raping her and her grandmother. “At age 11, she raised the money herself and found a guide to take her to the United States,” said Jones. “For these children the United States represents hope and a place of security.”
This is why it was especially shocking to find that some of the children were abused and mistreated by U.S. Border Patrol agents after being apprehended, according to the report’s findings. Several children reported being kicked, tasered and being called names like “filthy pig” and “worthless,” according to Michelle Brane, director of the committee’s detention and asylum program.
Brane said they interviewed a 17-year old boy who reported that Border Patrol agents near McAllen grabbed him by the neck and pushed him to the ground, then tasered him. “He was most upset because they did the same thing to a pregnant woman also apprehended in his group,” Brane says. “He couldn’t understand why they would Taser a pregnant woman.”
The commission also spoke with two girls ages 12 and 14, who were beaten by Border Patrol agents. One girl’s injuries were severe enough to require she be taken to the hospital. The girl was too afraid to tell the doctor about how her injuries had been caused because the same guard was standing right next to her in the exam room, says Brane.
The report makes several recommendations for U.S. government institutions caring for the migrant children from smaller group home facilities to more child friendly holding places that look less like detention facilities. And it recommends that Border Patrol prioritize screening for asylum cases and care for migrant children. “This migration is going to be the new norm,” said Brane. “And here in the United States we need to make sure that basic human rights are met.”